Rewilding at Sharpham

What is rewilding?

Rewilding or ecological restoration is a form of land management that encourages natural processes to shape and restore landscapes. It follows the principle that nature should be given the opportunity to express itself with minimal human intervention, reclaiming environments we have ecologically degraded.

Aims:

  • Increase biodiversity
  • Reinstate self-regulating landscapes
  • Give ecosystems the essential resilience to react to climate change
  • Restore people’s connection with nature
  • Support local communities and encourage new opportunities

We are living in a period of mass extinction and global climate change; something needs to change. Rewilding an essential part of the solution to reverse the already significant losses our natural world has suffered. You can find out more about other rewilding projects here.

Ambios and Rewilding

Ambios is a not-for-profit nature conservation training organisation based in South Devon. Since 2012 we have been tenants of land on the Sharpham Estate, in the Dart Valley, South Devon AONB. We manage the holding for wildlife, as a learning environment for trainees & volunteers on their nature conservation programmes and part of a well-being service for adults with learning disabilities.

In April 2020 Ambios took a big step in taking on an additional 50 acres of pasture on the estate with the vision of rewilding it. The land is part of an 18th century parkland landscape and is a busy recreational venue with extensive public access and broad ranging stakeholder interest. This new venture provides a unique opportunity to share rewilding with a large and diverse audience; a core motivation of both Ambios and our landlords The Sharpham Trust. The commitment to rewilding is strengthened by a drive to demonstrate a working model based on social-enterprise approach and as a tenant farmer rather than a landowner.

Rewilding approach

In January 2021 Ambios entered into a five-year Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship agreement for the holding while in 2020, the Sharpham Trust secured a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for developing rewilding education and outreach programmes over a period of three years – this project is known as ‘Sharpham Wild for People.’

The shared vision under the Stewardship agreement is to nurture and echo the designed landscape elements of the eighteenth-century parkland, while honouring a contemporary desire for a rewilded, naturalistic landscape.

Grazing will be reduced to a small fraction of former levels using a diversified range of animals to mimic natural grazing processes, encouraging successional processes and the enrichment of vegetation structures. A large number of new native trees are also being planted to restore the parkland to its mid-nineteenth century character.

A comprehensive programme of ecological monitoring is an important part of Ambios’s rewilding ambitions. In our first year we produced baseline monitoring data for breeding birds, winter birds, bats, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, earthworms and soil chemistry including carbon. The objective of this work is to trial a suite of useful monitoring techniques that is not only of strong educational value to trainees but is also a platform to promote ecological benefits of rewilding. It is hoped that it will help in securing future funding and serve as an example to other landowners how to effectively evidence rewilding processes.

Actions within the first year

  • The withdrawal of grazing to give successional processes a head-start and let the vegetation grow, flower, and fully reveal its character.
  • All internal field boundary fences removed to allow free movement of grazers & other large animals.
  • New stockproof boundary fencing erected along public access routes.
  • Pigs introduced used to give a ‘turbocharged’ boost to disturbance processes stimulating early vegetation diversification.
  • Extensive ecological baseline surveys carried out by conservation trainees and the Ambios team.
  • Localised planting of native parkland trees.

Wildlife recordings from the first year

April – June 2020

  • 30 farmland bird species were recorded, including three species on the British Trust for Ornithology’s UK Red List for birds increasingly at risk of extinction in Britain: song thrush, herring gull and linnet. Birds on the Amber list were also registered – the dunnock & the swift.
  • 7 different bats were recorded, including our most common, the Pipistrelle, and some of the UK’s rarest bats, including the Greater Horseshoes.
  • 10 different common butterflies were counted including Meadow Browns, the Peacock and Green-Veined Whites, feeding in hedgerow habitats and dense vegetation.
  • Grassland surveys showed that the land to be rewilded is not as affected by the use of chemicals and intensive agriculture as first thought – making it more favourable for rewilding

July – September 2020

  • 8 species of bat recorded, including the rare Lesser and Greater Horseshoes.
  • 14 butterfly species recorded, including species not previously recorded in the Spring such as the small copper, holly blue and gatekeeper.
  • 23 species of river birds recorded, including the curlew which is listed as a ‘red species’ on the BTO/RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern list.
  • Grassland surveys found great variation in species richness among the transects with the poorest having only a mean of 6.6 species per quadrat and the richest having a mean of 21.8 species per quadrat.
  • The full summary of ecological monitoring for this period can be found here.

October 2020 – January 2021

  • Established a protocol for sampling worms. 7 species were identified altogether among the adult worms, all common or very-common species
  • Soil samples collected from across our rewilding site to monitor carbon capture and change in soil nutrients. 175 sample points taken in total.
  • Seen an increase in specialist farm birds (numerous stone chats, meadow pipits, goldfinches and linnets.)
  • Daily observations of barn owls foraging over the open fields.
  • Full summary of ecological monitoring for this period can be found here.

Wildlife recordings from the second year

April – June 2021

  • Similar to last year there were still a good diversity of bats recorded despite the cold weather, including some of the UK’s rarest, the greater horseshoes and lesser horseshoes. The results also include a small number of passes by brown long-eared bat, a species not recorded in the 2020 surveys.
  • No significant changes in plant composition between late summer 2020 and early summer 2021. The 2021 results did, however, strengthen the findings from 2020 by providing additional sampling earlier in the season.
  • Low abundance and diversity of butterflies – unsurprising considering the abnormally cold and wet spring.
  • 38 bird species encountered – similar composition of breeding song-bird species to 2020 with considerable variation in numbers for some species, for example much higher numbers of chiffchaffs, blackcaps & blue tits in 2021. It was encouraging to have new records of greater spotted and green woodpeckers and three new BOCC4 Amber listed farmland birds: kestrel, stock dove and house martin.
  • Installed three of four fixed-point photographic monitoring points for Home Farm. These were donated by South Devon AONB and are an excellent way to monitor ecological and landscape transformations that occur over extended periods of time.

Partnership with United Response

Ambios are proud to work in partnership with United Response to provide real work experience for adults with learning difficulties.

Together, we are trying to embed rewilding within their work experience and are creating opportunities for the people we support to be involved in the wildlife monitoring, surveys and land management across our rewilding site.

This includes putting camera traps out to help us determine which species are present, conducting insect and earthworm surveys, building bird and bat boxes, planting trees and erecting fences.

Working together in this way helps to break down barriers and foster mutual understanding.

Devon Rewilding Network

By restoring the biodiversity of this land, we wish to connect with people engaged in similar activities and inspire others to join us on this journey that will provide an opportunity for local wildlife to bounce back. We understand that rewilding can mean different things to different people, and that connecting with people in a variety of ways is vital to change the way we view our natural world.

We are excited to be working with The Woodland Trust and Rewilding Britain to help facilitate a network of people based in Devon who are interested in rewilding, where they can connect and lean on each other for support, information and guidance.

You can join the Devon Rewilding Network here.

The Future

  • Small numbers of rare breed cows & hardy ponies will be introduced and kept on the land throughout the year to diversify grazing impacts and to stimulate more beneficial disturbance of the ground and trees (bark stripping, rubbing etc.) during winter grazing.
  • Pigs will be put on the land periodically to continue to provide ‘rooting’ disturbance.
  • Numbers of grazers will be greatly reduced to achieve a greater equilibrium between grazing pressure & plant growth to develop more complex vegetation structures & diverse plant assemblages. Successional processes will be freed-up to allowing taller transitional vegetation & natural tree/shrub regeneration.
  • Trees, scrub & hedges are being retained and allowed to develop with the exception of minor clearance at landscape viewpoints. All deadwood to be retained in-situ & dead trees to be kept standing where safe to do so.
  • Continued planting of 140 native parkland trees through 2021 & 2022.
  • Green haying and seed spreading from adjacent species-rich areas of grassland.
  • Land drains to be located and filled-in to promote the development of natural ground water conditions.
  • Continue with and diversify the existing ecological monitoring programme as part of Ambios’s educational and outreach programmes.
  • Develop interpretation resources, including on-site panels and installations and a range of publicly accessible online educational materials.
  • Ambios has a vision to rewild the remaining area of its tenancy from 2023 onward, bringing the total area to 150 acres, and also to identify with the landlord the options for upscaling rewilding/habitat diversification efforts across other adjacent areas of the Sharpham estate.